At age 30, it’s natural to look back on your life and think ‘how the f*** did I get here?’ If I was given only one word to describe myself in 2017, it would be husband. Or Christian. Or some other Twitter bio keyword. If given two words, I would probably go with comedy nerd. In this four-part series I take a look at my comedy influences to find out how this all happened. First stop: childhood.
Initially when thinking about when I started to become a comedy nerd, I had this false picture of myself as a kid in my brain. I assumed I was pretty normal and didn’t become full-blown weird until much later. College, maybe. But my iPhone notes quickly filled up with comedy-centric memories that hit me long before puberty did. These first hints of my awkward comedy-loving lifestyle fell into two camps: creating silliness and studying it.
The Easily Influenced Mind of a Child
While everyone else was ordering their next Goosebumps from the Scholastic book fair, I was focused on the Encyclopedia Brown and Sideways Stories from Wayside Schools of the adolescent book world. Why would anyone choose being scared over being happy? That’s been my philosophy pretty much my whole life when it comes to choosing things like books, movies, or human beings to stand next to. I don’t remember much about Encyclopedia Brown, but I do remember that he was a detective who LOVED pancakes. That’s very funny to me even right now, in this moment. Louis Sachar’s Sideways Stories still ranks among my favorite books. It’s absurd. There’s a chapter about a school student who trades away their big toe to the janitor. Another about a kid who’s getting a tattoo and the whole class gives their opinion on what he should get...and he decides to get a potato. A potato. I never liked to read in school, even when it came with free Pizza Hut (shout out to Book-it). But, when I could choose a funny book I felt like I was gaming the system. I just thought to myself, ‘if they knew how silly this book was, it wouldn’t count for a grade.’
It wasn’t just big-boy chapter books that shaped my developing mind. I was obsessed with comics. My bookshelf contained primarily Calvin & Hobbes and Far Side books. Secondarily, dust. Because cleaning my room isn’t fun, Mom. I’m not special in liking these books; they’re considered classics for a reason. But I do think I soaked it up like a fresh sponge, like only a future nerd could. I read and reread those things until I all but memorized the contents, and even started drawing some of my favorites (all of them) in a notebook where I also designed my own line of sneakers--a different kind of nerdy altogether. But for this comedy nerd, Calvin & Hobbes is the perfect balance of funny and sweet, which I find myself gravitating to more and more. Its mixture of silly and sentimental are apparent in my taste for shows like Parks & Recreation. The Far Side introduced me to the idea that there are different ways of looking at the world. And one of those ways is through the eyes of talking cows and menacing chickens.
Another medium for offering up brand new points of views to pre-teens was MAD Magazine. One of my favorite things to do was walk 15 minutes to the closest Turkey Hill, fill up a 32 oz cherry slushie, and grab a MAD Magazine. All-in-all it cost about $3.00, cheap! It introduced me to the idea of pop-culture, referential, parody. Humor could just be adding a spin on something that already exists? That’s fun. It was a lot of fun in things like Spaceballs and Weird Al songs. It was less fun in things like any of the five Scary Movies.
Fortunately for me as a kid, those movies were well in the future and I would be old enough to know better. I do remember being exposed to some quality comedy movies at a young age though. Apparently my parents were kind of cool.
Do not tell them I said that.
I remember at one point my dad said something to the tune of “you’ve never seen the Jerk?!” He said it like I wasn’t completely dependent on my parents to choose the things I could watch. So we watched the Jerk. And I loved the Jerk. A similar thing happened with Animal House. I definitely watched it way earlier than I should have. But my parents remembered it being a very funny movie and we loved watching funny movies. So our, go to church every Sunday, family watched Animal House together. My eyes were covered for a significant portion, but the comedy still came through. It was around that same time that we started picking up stand-up comedy specials from Blockbuster. We usually rented compilations that contained sets from a multitude of big-tie, suit jacket wearing comedians. Some of them good, some of them not-so-good, all of them riding the sweet sweet 90s comedy bubble. Adam Sandler was an early standout. Then, when we rented a Steven Wright video for the first time, I was a goner. It was perfect. I think we paid hefty late-fees on that one, because there was no way I was going to let this masterpiece leave the house without a fight. I definitely told his jokes to anyone who would listen. If they wanted to hear them or not. A comedy nerd trademark.
My First Attempts at Being Funny
Creating comedy isn’t an essential part of being a comedy nerd. It’s more about the appreciation and obsessive consumption of the art form. However, attempting to be funny has regularly crept its way into my comedy story. I think poop jokes and ‘kids say the darnedest things’ style non-sequiturs are ubiquitous in childhood. In light of that, I’ll skip over any stories that my parents might have deemed Facebook worthy, had Facebook existed that far back in the past, and stick to the truly transformative comedy you’ve come to know from me.
My first foray into anti-comedy came in the delirious late nights of sleepovers at my best friend’s place. We would play a game, or what I would now refer to as a bit, where one of us would ask ‘which is funnier?’ And the only two options were objects or ideas that didn’t have any intrinsic comedic value. We’d create a March Madness of funniness in our brains.
- Which is funnier: socks or wheels? Wheels.
- Which is funnier: wheels or cheese? Cheese.
- Which is funnier: cheese or wheels of cheese? Wheels of cheese.
There’s a hint of humor here. But I wouldn’t award us the Mark Twain Prize without a little more punch up. Still, it was practice. It’s hardly a big leap from ‘which is funnier?’ to ‘I thought the plural of haiku was haikusies.’
That same best friend and I took our obvious creative genius to the next level, putting our ideas down on paper. In narrative form. What did Bill Waterson or Louis Sachar have that two second graders didn’t? We went to work during indoor recess, the less fun recess that only happened when it was cold or raining. We created characters and a framing device: three chipmunk friends, twelve chapters. One chapter for each month of the year. Each month brought new mischief in the noble pursuit of acorns. I pray to God on a regular basis that the originals from our chipmunk adventures would pop up in a manilla envelope somewhere. We’re not just talking written prose, we’re talking original artwork. It was the real deal. The kind of real deal that must have annoyed our classmates when we pestered our teacher into letting us perform a live reading for each new chapter. I miss those chipmunks, even though I can’t remember any of their names or adventures, but they live on in spirit every time I fantasize about one of my absurdist doodles transitioning into a best selling children’s book.
I was a weird kid. A weird kid who would grow into an even weirder adult. It’s all thanks to parents who let me watch adult movies way too young and teachers who let me take time away for learning to read aloud about anthropomorphized chipmunks